Given Willian’s glittering debut, many Arsenal fans are now worried about the future of club-record signing Nicolas Pepe.
First of all, every angle of Nicolas Pepe’s Arsenal’s career so far demands nuance. Pepe is a unique player with heaps of natural ability and the potential to be one of the best forwards in the league.
However, Pepe also needs to be far more consistent throughout this upcoming season and has not shown the mental application to be the club’s leading man yet. At the time of his purchase, Pepe was one of the most sought-after talents in all of Europe, but Arsenal certainly overpaid for the Lille man.
Finally the arrival of Willian from Chelsea will either make or break Pepe’s career in north London.
Willian is both a boon and an obstacle for Pepe. The Brazilian is a consummate professional and his wealth of experience is exactly what Mikel Arteta desires in his squad. When the Brazilian made the switch to Arsenal, Arteta’s quotes about Willian’s arrival almost seemed directly pointed at Nicolas Pepe. Speaking to the media before Arsenal’s match against Fulham, Arteta said:
“We have some really young talent and they need experienced players who they can just put their shirts on and start performing. We need some players that can hit the ground straight away and we can be more patient with others. If we want to develop other players well they need top players around them because they will increase their performance and their value.”
Arteta’s comments were completed vindicated as WIllian put together a glittering display against Fulham in Pepe’s preferred right-wing position. The two-time Premier League champion slid seamlessly on the right-hand side of Arsenal’s attacked and looked exactly like the type of player that Arteta needs in his system, a player who can heap pressure on opponents with sound decision making, positional awareness and constant application. These are traits that Pepe has not always provided this Arsenal team.
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However, that is not to say that Pepe is now relegated to the bench for the foreseeable future. Pepe is far more unpredictable than Willian with a deeper bag of tricks and wand of a left foot. The argument can be made that while Willian is a better system player, Pepe has the superior talent. Pepe showed how good he can be with his stellar performances against Manchester City and Chelsea in the latter stages of the FA Cup. Pepe was constantly driving at opposition defenders wreaking havoc and pulling them out of position. The Ivorian will need to show that sort of dedication and intensity in all his games going forward, not just when silverware is on the line.
Arteta is setting high standards of dedication and consistency for his players. Willian will be ready to answer that call and it’s up to Pepe to match that. At Lille it could be said that Pepe was a big fish in a small pond, and now in north London he will need to apply himself to take the next step in his development. Many fans thought that it would be Willian breathing down Pepe’s neck all season but it is apparently the other way around.
It will of course be a long season. Both players will have plenty of chances to prove themselves and battle for minutes. There is even a chance that we could see both players on the pitch simultaneously with Willian in more central role and Pepe cutting in from the right-wing.
Only time will tell if Arteta will look to rotate the two players or how he chooses to manage the expectations of both, but in these early stages it will be fascinating to see what Pepe can do now that he has more direct competition.